Drunken Otaku: Heartstrings (Death Parade)

Apologies. That Seat's Taken.

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Named in honor of or perhaps pity for its subsequent arbiters-turned-managers (or vice-versa), Quindecim is a bar, in most respects, like any other: there's a bevy of bottles behind the counter, an observant barkeep to pour your picked poison straight or mixed to taste, and a stool waiting to take your weight a while. What sets Quindecim apart from typical bars, however, is that visitors' memories increase and become clearer the longer they stay. Well no-one lingers longer than Chiyuki, and no door (front, elevator, or otherwise) is heavier to close than one by a bartender after such a bittersweet last call.

If you've yet to see Death Parade, feel free to do so. Also, you've been warned: only the following break separates you and spoilers.

If Bartender can be believed, it's not uncommon practice for Japanese bartenders to make sure specific stools are kept empty at certain times to accommodate their regulars. It makes sense from a business and behavioral standpoint. We, as humans, are largely habitual. Think back to your schooldays; even if you hated the very idea of assigned seats, you most likely sat with the same people at the same table during lunch every day of your own free will (and enjoyed it). Conversely, occupying a different space was undoubtedly uncomfortable to some degree even despite the regular company.

But what do we actually remember of those with whom we were so close once upon a time? Only fragments, really, imbued with emotion(s) — a general sense that can often be tainted or outright false. Still, the presence of recollection is truth to the mind and reminder of an identifiable (albeit idealized) state of being. As the means to such ends, some people keep Polaroids. Decim, on the other hand, keeps dolls. Rather, Decim makes mannequins — lifeless collections of posable prostheses modeled and guised after past guests (or guests that have passed on) — as homages to those who earned his respect by having lived fulfilled lives.

This is the hobby Decim has to keep in order to come to terms with his contradictory self: a dummy, imbued with human emotions, whose memories are remotely and forcibly wiped clean at random intervals to maintain a sense of objectivity for each new guest he hosts as an arbiter. And despite all his effort, the dozens of distinctly fashioned observers sitting in the balcony vary only in visage — their styles merely window dressing and actions but puppetry. Even the bar’s animated centerpiece, a mannequin propped up at a piano, only blindly bludgeons the keys as if frustrated over a forgotten tune. But these were all, presumably, inspired by one-night stands.

Chiyuki on the other hand, is an anomaly. She arrives at Quindecim with vital portions of her memory intact. Called in to advise on this situation, the head arbiter (Nona) decrees that Chiyuki’s memories have to be wiped and resorted in order for her to receive proper judgement. While this reformat is being processed by the backlogged information bureau, Nona decides to perform a little experiment: what effect will be sewn by having a human serve alongside Decim? This is how an arbiter gains an assistant and the (mostly) unspoken rule forbidding human-arbiter relations, “Arbiters may not work hand in hand with life, for that will ruin them,” is called into question.

Viewers aren't able to ascertain the impact Chiyuki has on Decim relative to the inspirations for the other mannequins he's fashioned over the years, because none of them are deserving of that degree of respect within the show's 12-episode run. (Even the pianist only gets a passing shrug.) Those 12 episodes are devoted to defining Chiyuki as something as precious and worthwhile as time in a place where an unyieldingly oppressive workflow demands snap judgements. Since Decim’s emotions are artificially implanted without the context of life so foreign to arbiters, Chiyuki, though just a (more concentrated) construct herself, is more or less Decim’s guide to the pragmatic emotions he hosts and those he inevitably accumulates while passing judgement on the souls brought before him. This is what makes Chiyuki’s final resting place in Quindecim so bittersweet.

After her judgement, Chiyuki’s frame gets an honored seat behind, not at, the bar. She is more than a visitor; Chiyuki proves herself a necessity and will be by Decim’s side through judgment after judgment for as long as he’s making cocktails. While that’s all well and good, Death Parade takes great care not to retract its premise about arbiters’ memories being wiped. That means even this momentous meeting, as extended and impactful as it was, will be reduced to the same nothingness as all the other fleshless faces throughout the bar. The impending loss of her effect on Decim, of her humanity in general, is then rendered as equal to the audience as Decim’s eye contact with Chiyuki being broken by the bar’s elevator doors. Optimism demands this will be something so “life”-changing that Decim has no choice but to remember, but even genuinely made memories dissolve with time despite their accumulated mementos that ultimately end up blending into the scenery.

Death Parade is streaming on Funimation.com and Hulu.


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Girls Getting Hit in the Face with Balls: Ink Talks Taisho Baseball Girls on the Taiiku Podcast

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At Otakon 2015, the Reverse Thieves entertained a room full of people by showing the slapstick sensation of cute girls getting knocked in the noggin by baseballs during their first practice. That promising premise was enough to hook me into watching all twelve episodes of Taisho Baseball Girls. While I was squeeing over this 1920s period piece from 2009 on the tweety box, Kory Cerjak asked me about doing a podcast along with Kate of the Reverse Thieves. How could I say no? Head over to the Taiiku Podcast now via the link below and give a listen. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit to talk about!

Taiiku Podcast #12

Taisho Baseball Girls is streaming on HULU and available from Sentai Filmworks (amazon/rightstuf).


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My interview with legendary animator/director Koji Morimoto now up on Anime News Network

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Well, this is a first. I have an article on Anime News Network! Deb Aoki from Publisher's Weekly had an interview scheduled with Japanese animator/director Koji Morimoto at the J-Pop Summit in San Francisco this summer, and asked me to join in and contribute a few questions.

Morimoto is a renowned artist in the anime industry, with credits on Akira, Robot Carnival, Memories, The Animatrix, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Fist of the North Star, among many others. His work in the past two decades has become increasingly experimental, such as the dreamlike "Dimension Bomb" short from Genius Party: Beyond. Deb and I asked him about the environment at Studio 4°C (which Morimoto co-founded), his stance on 3-D animation, and the future of anime crowdfunding, among other subjects.

Big thanks to Deb, the J-Pop Summit, and Anime News Network for the opportunity to speak with Mr. Morimoto!

Interview: Koji Morimoto

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Snapshot: On the Dark Side of the Pshuuu (Wakako-zake)

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For the most part, Wakako-zake is about as warm and lighthearted a show as you can watch. Wakako enjoys something to eat and something to drink. That’s ... pretty much it. Between taking a seat at a local izakaya and leaving said seat for another customer, there’s usually at least one Pshuuu—the moment of taste euphoria. When Wakako’s palate gets overwhelmed with flavor, the background turns to static swirls of bright watercolor, Wakako’s pupils dilate (probably aided by her libation of choice), and sheer awe knocks the wind out of her like so much a squeeze toy. She’s an unassuming woman won over by the simple pleasures in life. Of course there are workplace and personal histories that lend context to this escapism, but such motivations are usually not invasive—nothing too dark. That’s what makes a certain moment in the ninth episode, “9th Night: Kani Miso,” so deliciously devilish.

While dining on a dainty dish, a delicacy consisting of the vital organs of a crab (many crabs, it’s postulated, since only so little can come from each), Wakako openly admits to herself that gulping down the dish, despite its small quantity, doesn’t feel wrong. She then takes an incredibly tiny morsel in her chopsticks, and something comes over her when she ingests it. The background is a deeper hue than usual. Wakako’s typically full, round, googly eyes become half-closed and sinister looking. The implication is, of course, that she's enjoying the experience for its exacted toll.

Although portrayed as nothing else throughout the entire series, Wakako is suddenly painted as a carnivore for her gaping maw and moment of clarity wherein she notes how something that was once so vital to another living creature is so delicious to her. Even her pshuuu, delivered with haunting echo, is in a minor key. Lookers-on will also be wise to note the very unusual "N" preceding the pshuu proper. Clearly we are in the Negaverse, and this is Nega-Wakako.

This contrast, this stark (albeit playful and ultimately redeemed) twist, is a good bit of hilarity given that it comes eight and a half episodes into a series involving such a strictly held to formula. The joke inverts the show's main draw, the cuteness and warmth, on its head. It’s the only time the joke is used throughout the entirety of the show’s thirteen-episode run and very effective for it.

Wakako-zake is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


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Review: Michiko and Hatchin

Bikes, booze, guns, and girls who know how to use them.

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I am the king of procrastination. Now, if it’s something important or someone needs me, I’m yer only man (as we say in Dublin). But left to my own devices, I flitter away my time. Strange, how I find a show that I promised to watch ages ago but never did and find the main characters going through the same thing. Equal parts road movie, crime drama, comedy, and farce, Michiko and Hatchin is a great introduction to Studio Manglobe and director Sayo Yamamoto.

Michiko Malandro is a hardened criminal. She’s been in and out of prison for various reasons — mostly gang-related incidents. But now, she’s busted out of the joint and has a mission: she’s going to find Hana “Hatchin ” Morenos and bring her to Hiroshi, Hana’s father. The only thing standing between her and Hana reaching their goal is an army of cops, a former friend of Hiroshi gunning for Michiko, crooked business owners, gangs, jealous singers, brothel madams, psychotic circus owners, and, of course, Michiko’s arch nemesis cop and former friend Atsuko Jackson. So the two girls set out to find Hiroshi and solve the mystery of why he disappeared all while trying to avoid being arrested or killed.

I'd seen Sayo Yamamoto’s later work, Lupin III: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine, but only discovered a few weeks ago that she is the main director for Michiko and Hatchin. She seems to fill this show, at least from what I read into this, with two characters burned by relationships, their aspirations, and how they grew up. Michiko is stubborn, and she doesn't tolerate people getting in the way of her plans. That's not to say she becomes overtly violent, but it seems to be maddening for her whenever somebody tells her something that she doesn't want to hear. This role almost exclusively seems to be ocupied by Hatchin, although other characters do find themselves dumb enough to get in front of this tall, dark-skinned, pistol-whipping mama. There's an almost Roger Corman-esque feel to Michiko, a throwback to a bygone age of cinema when female characters could be who they wanted to be without having to explain themselves. While there is a sleazy angle to some of the male characters seeming to think that Michiko is there to simply service them, please them, or in some way, shape, or form be subservient to them, the males who she associates with, for the most part, recognize or are forced to recognize that she’s not to be trifled with. Yamamoto usually has her older lead character standing absolutely still in a scene, squaring up the situation while looking through shades, gritting her teeth, and then unleashing hell. Michiko looks like a runway model with an expletive-laden mouth and a penchant for pulling guns on people. Hatchin, on the other hand, is the voice of reason.

After Hatchin endures hell at the hands of her foster parents and foster siblings, Michiko bursts her scooter through a nearby window and tells Hana that she’s the daughter of a dead man and this is her chance to be saved. With little choice, Hana accepts the offer. Pretty soon, she realizes that Michiko is a drunkard who doesn’t know what she’s doing half the time and struggles to deal with a ten year-old girl. This leads to a lot of conversations, and by conversations I mean blazing arguments, in which one of them will walk off — sometimes in the middle of a dangerous situation or an unsafe area. But at the heart of it, Hana really does care for Michiko and comes to rely on her when it comes to adults (and even kids) threatening harm. Whenever Michiko appears in front of them, you can really sense that this is a human lioness stalking her prey. Having said that, Michiko also comes to rely on Hana. She is, quite simply, a ray of sunshine in the older woman's life. When we learn Michiko's backstory, it turns out that she really did struggle in early life to escape the clutches of gangs. It's the fact that she got arrested by Atsuko that saves her. If she hadn't, Michiko probably would have gotten herself killed in a back alley somewhere.

Michicko and Hatchin prides itself on having a Hunter S. Thompson type of story. The two girls don't seem to mind coming across a mixture of weirdos, trophy girlfriends, wannabe gangsters, criminals, trigger-happy cops, and the assorted paraphernalia that you find in run down apartments or dilapidated favelas. Except for the multi-story arcs, almost all of the stories take place in a different location, although always within the same general South American setting. For the first couple of episodes, the show seems to take a rather sanguine — neither corrupt nor competent — view of the police. After Atsuko becomes a major antagonist, the police in various departments across the country shoot first and ask questions later. I also found it curious how the show seems to differentiate between the countryside police and the metropolitan divisions. The country police seem to take life easy and don't seem to want much trouble, however they are not inherently corrupt. By comparison, anytime we are exposed to the city police, the results are always disastrous for our heroines. More complex is the story of Monstro, the gang Michiko, Satoshi, and Hiroshi were part of.

While in the gang, the three of them commit some major criminal acts. Of that there is no doubt. It was a gang fighting for control of a corner in an unimportant criminal war. Tantalizingly, there appears to be bits of the gang's story left out. It seemed to be fighting multiple enemies but we are never told exactly who outside of a Russian mafia gang. Add to this the fact that, in their earlier lives, the three friends' roles were never fully defined. Whatever their reasons for being in the gang, once Hiroshi and Michiko get together, things fall apart. Hiroshi seems to have left because of Michiko (although there are actually multiple reasons given), and Michiko left because she got caught and jailed. Only Satoshi stayed, and he does so because of a sense of respect among the criminal elements … not that it helped him. Satoshi can't seem to forgive his friend and especially not the girl for whom his friend left the gang. That inability to forgive is what drives him as a primary antagonist, sets off the chain of events that will end the series, gives rise to new adversaries that will face off against Michiko and Hana, and ultimately sheds light on the gang’s early life. The show really shines when Michiko is struggling to connect the dots so that she can reunite with Hiroshi and Hana and has an epiphany. Instead of being disappointed, she helps her surrogate sister get over this hill she's made for herself to see the brightness on the opposite side. In the beginning, Hana would have been content to find her father, but as the show goes on, she and Michiko bond on such a level that it would have been worth the journey whether or not she found him.

The show's setting is wonderful. It's almost like Brazil but not quite — full of deserts, forest plantations, sparkling cities, coastal party towns, and sleepy border towns. I like how the show makes a distinction between the upper class, who seem to be predominantly descendants of Caucasians, and the lower class, who are made up of Caribbean and African descendants. The lot of the lower classes is simply to survive, join a gang, or at least have enough knowledge about how the world really works to be able to avoid any unnecessary entanglements. For a Japanese show, it has an amazing talent for representing Michiko — physically, with her skin tone and looks, and socially through her use of fashion to dress up for the upper classes and dress down with the lower classes. For my money, Michiko seems to be happiest amongst regular people. She seems to understand them the best. Hana, after separating from Michiko for a period, struggles initially to find her way. In doing so, however, she learns that she can get along in life just fine and that her life is more interesting with Michiko than it is without her.

For me, the ending of the show was unexpected. It wasn't the ending I thought it was going to be, but I wasn't upset either. I commend Yamamoto for having the courage to give the characters what they actually wanted and still not achieve what they started out wanting. Even the show's antagonists Satoshi, Shinsuke, and Atsuko have their own growth as characters and their own crisis of faith. Some of them survive it, and some of them don't. I guess the journey itself is (and should be) more interesting than the actual destination.

Michiko and Hatchin is available right now in the US from FUNimation and from MVM in the UK. It's about to get a complete Blu-ray and DVD collection release in Australia from Madman. I'd recommend that you pick it up or, if you live in the United States, stream it from the FUNimation website.

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